WORCESTER, Mass. — Amid perceptions that manufacturing is yesterday’s work, educators and industry leaders say central Massachusetts’ identity as a region that makes things remains intact. Innovation and production abound, they said, fueled by the area’s diverse and talented workforce.
But just as the regional manufacturing industry thrives on the local educational infrastructure that is training those workers, it is also dependent on it.
“We’ve got kind of an opportunity and a dilemma at the same time,” said Ted Bauer, director of workforce development strategies at MassMEP, a Worcester-based organization advancing manufacturing in the state. Over the next 10 years, he said, manufacturing companies in Massachusetts will need to replace an estimated 100,000 existing workers, and right now, “that demand is not being met.”
While around the county there are pockets of healthy supplies of students going into the field, some of the region’s biggest producers of manufacturing workers — public schools and community colleges — admitted they’ve had difficulty recruiting young people to the specialty. Part of the problem, they say, is the lingering stereotypes dogging manufacturing: that it’s dull, that the work is dirty, that its jobs are disappearing. Some former students, meanwhile, said they felt their schools didn’t put much emphasis on it as a viable career path, and that there was pressure instead to attend a four-year college.
But perhaps one of manufacturing’s chief workforce development obstacles — and coincidentally also one of its strengths — is that it’s not the same line of work today that it was for past generations.
“I think a lot of it is it has become more technical,” Bauer said. “It’s more of a STEM field now, and that doesn’t suit everybody.”
Much of modern manufacturing work is more dependent on understanding computers and automation than elbow grease, some education officials said.
“We’re not training students how to operate machines,” said Damian Kieran, a manufacturing professor at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester. “We’re training them how to program them.”
For that reason, said his colleague at QCC, James Heffernan, a professor of electronics engineering technology, students training in the field need to have skill sets geared toward problem solving.
“My students are focused on how to troubleshoot, how to analyze a complex system and break it down into its essential parts,” he said. “And they have to learn how to think outside the box.”
Jacqueline Belrose, Mount Wachusett Community College’s vice president of lifelong learning and workforce development, said students also need to know how to find and interpret information — reading blueprints, precision measuring and analyzing graphs are all basic skills of the trade.
“And what you’d need to have is computer skills,” she added, to properly use the high-tech machinery now commonplace in the industry.
Further along the higher education chain, professors at Worcester Polytechnic Institute said many of their students must also learn how to be entrepreneurial.
“We’re really educating the leaders of the industry,” said engineering professor Diran Apelian, who added several of his students have gone on to start their own companies in the region. “Our students have that industrial mindset — they look at (the field) as a way to both create value and create wealth.”
Not coincidentally, the range of opportunities available to WPI’s manufacturing graduates — many also go on to well-paying jobs at large corporations – has ensured there is no shortage of interest in the program, according to faculty there. Even at the high school level, some schools, including Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, are seeing high demand for their manufacturing offerings.
?(They’re) unfortunately maxed out,” said the school’s superintendent, Sheila Harrity, who added it’s only the aging school’s lack of space that prevents her from expanding the program, which enrolls 62 students.
In Worcester, meanwhile, where Harrity used to work as principal of the city’s main vocational school, Worcester Technical High School, the district has struggled to get enough students to go into manufacturing, according to superintendent Maureen Binienda.
“They just don’t know about the jobs, or their parents have preconceived issues with their child working in them,” she said.
The region’s community colleges, too, have had difficulty recruiting students for their programs.
“It’s one of the things I think everyone’s concerned about, especially over the last five years,” Belrose said, adding MWCC is part of a government grant-funded community college consortium, along with three other campuses, whose goal is to bring 400 more students into the field.
Anxiety is especially high for hirers, and not just those in manufacturing. Companies that employ workers with a similar skill set are encountering the same shortage of applicants.
“We’re going to be in a crisis” soon without an influx of new workers, said Jil Wonoski, a marketing consultant for the Tri State Truck Center in Shrewsbury, who reported there is a lack of diesel technicians in the region that has her out “pounding the pavement” to find solutions.
At least one of those solutions, many companies and trade organizations are finding, is that they can’t just wait for workers to materialize.
“We’re going to find them ourselves,” Wonoski said. Tri State Truck Center, for instance, recently partnered with Worcester’s South High Community School to start a diesel technician preapprenticeship program there, which has already helped the company find new recruits.
In the regional manufacturing industry, meanwhile, businesses have adopted the same approach, according to Bauer, either by starting their own in-house training programs or joining consortiums that provide the service.
“It’s the grow-it-your-own movement,” he said. “We’re at least seeing the employers come to the realization … that they have to get involved in (workforce development). They’re taking ownership of it.”
Yet companies also still see a major role for central Massachusetts’ educational institutions to play, and creative private-public collaborations are sprouting across the region with the aim of filling the sector’s workforce needs. Worcester Tech, for instance, this year has expanded a new state-subsidized after-school program that allows adult students from the district’s alternative education programs to get trained in manufacturing at the high school. Montachusett will be rolling out a similar adult-training program this fall.
One of the most important ways to fill their programs, many educators agreed, meanwhile, is to do a better job selling the field.
“We’re kind of like that awesome movie you haven’t heard a lot about,” said Kevin Killay, a machine technology instructor at Montachusett. “Kids are wowed by us when they see what we do here.”
There’s also promising — and potentially lucrative — careers awaiting students who pursue manufacturing and similar fields in the region. Considering many only require a high school- or community college-level education, those opportunities also carry smaller risk than the traditional academic path most students pursue after graduation, said Nelly Colon, a Worcester Tech graduate who now works as an automotive technician in Nashua, New Hampshire, after training at the Universal Technical Institute in Norwood.
“I have a lot of friends who are just now finishing up college after four years, and they’re having a hard time getting jobs,” the 25-year-old Winchendon resident said. “I’m very happy with the decision I made.”
Students who do end up pursuing advanced education like Caitlin Walde, who admitted she “kind of fell into” manufacturing when she arrived as an undergraduate at WPI, often find a much more diverse field than what manufacturing offered decades ago. Picking her initial course load, the Washington native said she “crossed off all the classes that sounded interesting, and most ended up being in mechanical engineering.”
Now pursuing a Ph.D. at WPI — her project has her working with the Army Research Lab to develop new cold spray technology — Walde said she’s also developed an affinity for the Worcester area, despite her initial reservations about it.
“I see it in the faces of my students — they want to stay here, they don’t want to move,” said Apelian. “The (negative) image is still there, but it’s changing.”
Apelian and his fellow manufacturing faculty at WPI are accordingly high on the region’s prospects of retaining its title as a thriving manufacturing hub, thanks in part to the “intellectual horsepower” he said is driving innovation in the local industry.
Bauer, too, is optimistic about Central Massachusetts’ future. But reality sets in for even the most brilliant startups, he said.
“When they scale up, and serve more than one order, they still have to build a production team,” he said. “And they run into the same problems.”
The fate of the region’s historic economic engine — the industry that shaped its landscape and culture — consequently hinges not on staving off obsolescence, but on simply finding people who want to do the work.
“We have the students,” Binienda said. “The challenge for us is: how do we connect them to the jobs?”
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com